Katya Apekina Talks Psychics, Slavic Stories, and Writing as Trance

Katya Apekina’s highly anticipated novel Mother Doll (out March 12, 2024, from Abrams Books) follows Zhenia, a young woman in a crumbling marriage whose surprise pregnancy coincides with an unexpected connection—a queer psychic named Paul claiming to channel messages from her dead great-grandmother, Irina.

Paul’s messages from Irina recount her first-hand experience as a Russian revolutionary, culminating in the only moment that Zhenia knows about Irina’s past: when she leaves her daughter behind in an orphanage. Paul begins to channel more than Irina’s words as the ancestral trauma of this maternal lineage beings to crack Zhenia open in a way that allows healing to enter.

I sat down with Katya to talk psychic classes via Zoom, Slavic stories, and how the writing process itself can be a trance-inducing act.


Melissa Ximena Golebiowski: I really enjoy that the novel is very much Zhenia’s story. Both how she is impacted by the stories of the women that came before her and the unique way in which she learns about these stories. Where did your inspiration for this novel come from?

Katya Apekina: The idea of healing through stories re-told or passed down. I definitely feel like I received a lot of stories from both sides of my family growing up. I’ve translated and transcribed memoirs from my maternal grandfather and parental grandmother.

My grandmother’s family was killed in WWII, she was a Polish Jew and the sole survivor. She escaped to Russia on foot. My grandfather lived under harsh conditions in the Soviet Union. Though their actual stories aren’t in the book itself, there’s this feeling of heaviness of being filled with another’s person’s history that ended up inspiring this book. The idea of the toll that it takes on people, even on Paul who is only the messenger.

I also think the story is about Zhenia growing up, right? She becomes more self-actualized both through listening to her ancestral story and processing it.

MXG: In the narrative, when Paul is communicating with Irina in the alternate realm, there is choir of voices that accompanies his interactions with her. Are these voices reflections of different aspects of Irina’s psyche, or do they represent a broader collective consciousness within the realm? What was your intention in including this choir of voices, and how does it contribute to the depth and complexity of the narrative environment?

KA: I envisioned a Greek chorus sort of thing. [The voices] are other souls from around the same time period in Russia. I wrote this book during the pandemic when I was suddenly on group Zoom calls all the time, you know, and there were all these disembodied voices in my space, all kind of talking about their own things, sort of asynchronously.

There’s something kind of like weird when you’re on Zoom and people don’t have great internet connections and they just talk over each other or there’s occasional lags. It makes the communication experience so weird, even though you’re looking at these people and it seems like, “Oh, this is like almost normal, yeah, yeah.” Then you’re looking at a person for their face to react to what you’re saying, and their reactions are wildly off, you know?

I had taken psychic meditation classes via Zoom and during them, I was like kind of wandering around in these otherworldly type spaces that I ended up using to influence what I saw in the afterlife…

Anyway, I feel like that was, I think, what inspired it but I just realized this very recently, because I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. I had taken psychic meditation classes via Zoom and during them, I was like kind of wandering around in these otherworldly type spaces that I ended up using to influence what I saw in the afterlife, that purgatory type space where Paul is talking to Irina and to the chorus of other voices who all want to be heard.

MXG: Ah yes, that makes sense. There’s also a moment where Irina, or who we think is Irina, and Paul are about to meet, and then it’s actually another soul impersonating her. Is that something else that also happens in that world?

KA: So, the dead are just their own conceptions of themselves basically. They’re so self-absorbed that usually impersonation doesn’t happen because everybody just wants their own story to be heard. But in that particular case, it’s someone from Irina’s past that uses that method to sort of vent his bitterness while Paul is attempting to summon Irina.

The souls in the novel are not static beings. They have to be reconstructed every time they are summoned. There are many kinds of souls meaning they’re made up of many selves.

And so, the Irina that is being summoned by Paul and who is telling her story, that’s just one aspect of the whole person Irina was. The oldest version of her, who has another family and lives to old age in the United States, is a completely different aspect of her. This soul Paul is speaking with is Irina’s teenage self, the self that stopped existing after she left the Soviet Union.

MXG: And this version is kind of the result of a collective consciousness?

KA: Yeah.

MXG: I know that you spent a lot of time researching historical context for this novel but you also mentioned taking psychic classes as research as well?

KA: Yeah, I started taking these mediumship classes before my grandfather died and after he had passed as well. They were really interesting and inspired this book in a lot of ways. They were also over Zoom. I had a class the night he [my grandfather] had died and the teacher was like, “Oh, I’m getting this message from the other side. It’s an older man. And he’s saying something about his sock, he’s is pointing to his sock.” I was just like, “Oh, that’s him.” I just wanted to so badly to say, “That’s me, that message is for me.”

But every other person in the Zoom was saying the same thing, that it was a message for them and at that point, it just didn’t feel true. Do you know what I mean? I was thinking, how willing I am to bend my own beliefs and sense of reality to accommodate this? I think that feeling of just wanting to believe and at the same time not believing it at all kind of soured me on the experience a little bit.

Months later, I was talking to someone and I was almost complaining that my grandfather had died and I just hadn’t felt his presence at all. I was complaining that he hadn’t visited me. Then that night, I could just hear my grandfather’s voice in my ear, like very close. He said my name and I immediately woke up. I immediately woke up and I was like, no. I was scared! I was like, “I don’t want this. I’m not ready for this. I don’t want this contact.”

I was just saying how I wanted this contact, but I don’t actually want this contact. But that felt very much like, a visit I wasn’t ready for.

Aside from that, I did a ton of historical research. You know that feeling that you need to be an expert because it can be hard to write about things you’ve never seen or experienced firsthand? I did all this additional research because of that feeling. I feel like the historical portions of the book were basically like channeled, if that makes sense. It was all in me and as I was writing those portions informed by this research, it just kind of poured out of me. Those scenes when we go back to Irina’s memories almost felt like visual hallucinations as I was writing them.

MXG: Zhenia and Irina bookend the four generations of women’s stories in the novel. The reader also learns about Zhenia’s mother and grandmother and how the complications within those relationships feed the next. How did you approach crafting these layered relationships to maintain clarity amidst the complexity of four generations? Is this one of the reasons that you structured the novel into four parts?

KA: You know, I think for me when I’m writing, it’s important to have things feel like they’re moving along or to have boundaries for myself around certain things so that I can understand them in a way. That way the reader doesn’t have to be there through all of the in-between parts, they can keep moving to the next section. There’s some sort of shift that happens.

I wanted to play with time in this weird way, like a record scratch type of thing where you just suddenly skip ahead.

I think about like, the experience of time, scientifically, how time works, all of it is just so strange. It feels like the cyclical nature of it, the linear nature, the way that things feel sped up and slowed down depending on various things. I wanted to play with time in this weird way, like a record scratch type of thing where you just suddenly skip ahead.

Sometimes, it can be like a shift of consciousness. The first part of the novel takes place before Zhenia’s grandmother, Vera, dies. The second part takes place after Vera has died and Zhenia is dealing with the logistics surrounding that. I don’t want to give too much stuff away in terms of what happens plot wise, but at some point, the medium is no longer available. And so, the next part takes place where Zhenia and her great-grandmother’s ghost have to talk more directly. Then the last part is after she’s given birth, several months after that. You see her new life, basically.

The story between them all is so intertwined. Vera is really close with Zhenia in a way that she couldn’t be with her own daughter. You know, as a mother, she couldn’t be that way, warm in that way, but as a grandmother, she could. And I think, the origin point of that is when Vera was left in an orphanage by Irina, who is now telling her story to Zhenia. So, this traumatic event affected Vera and then it affected Zhenia’s mother, Marina, and her own ability to be a mother. Then it affected Zhenia in terms of how she was mothered by Marina.

Someone described [Marina] her as cold or something or cruel. I don’t think she’s cruel, but she’s definitely, frozen in some way. I think once you see after Vera dies, there’s this shift in Zhenia’s relationship with her mother, this vacuum that’s left by the grandmother that her mother can now sort of fill.

Since Zhenia is pregnant and becomes a mother herself, she starts to think about things that she took for granted in a way that she hadn’t before. You know, she’s in her early 20s, she’s pretty young, but like, I think when she has her own kid, it’s when she begins to have more empathy for her own mother, which I think I definitely experienced personally.

There was this kind of amazement that my mother was able to do the things she was able to do after I knew how hard it was firsthand. So anyway, in terms of staying grounded, I feel I was very focused on Zhenia’s perspective in all this and that kept me focused.

Intergenerational stories can also feel like, sometimes they can be good, but they can sometimes also feel like a slog. You know what I mean? I mean, I feel like the metaphor of the nesting doll is pretty perfect. They’re all affecting each other in this small, encased, intense sort of package.

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